If you need any more proof that humans can be incredibly stupid, other than all the wars we wage and the flat-earthers etc, then look no further than the names of places. Some of the names we have chosen (emphasis on chosen – real people made these decisions) to give to the places where we reside are absolutely dumbfounding. For proof, look no further than the longest place name in the United Kingdom – Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch. Yes, you did read that correctly, in the United Kingdom, but not in the entire world. And no, you definitely didn’t read the place name correctly. Who could read it properly? Not even 5% of the Welsh population, I’d bet.
I thought that it was the longest place name in the world when I started writing this. But, to my horror, when looking at the Wikipedia page for the village, I saw that it was referred to as the second-longest place name in the world. My blood started to boil. I felt a need to punish my poor keyboard on my laptop by hammering out my frustrations on this blog and dragging my readers through my unrelenting outrage.
Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch is a small village near Bangor. Its name translates to, get ready for it, “St Marys Church in the hollow of the white hazel near to the rapid whirlpool of Llantysilio of the red cave”. Well, apparently it does, but it is impossible to verify for the vast majority of us. If someone came up with it in the modern day, it would be more logical to assume that they spilt their coffee all over the keyboard, causing it to malfunction and start indiscriminately typing letters. But it wasn’t made in the modern day, it was named in the 19th century, which is still far too modern for it to be acceptable.
Quite remarkable how the translation manages to only be 58 characters, yet conveys an entire Lord of the Rings storyline within it. That is actually one thing I am willing to praise it on – as I read the translation, I felt transported to a magical place of mythical creatures and awe-inspiring landscapes. When you consider it in this light, it is actually rather concise, as opposed to being obnoxiously long. Perhaps to the Welsh speaker, it is actually rather beautiful and insightful; a hymn sheet from which the essence of Wales itself is defined – rolling hills of consonants with the occasional vowel, signifying the ‘baaaaaaaaa’ of the sheep that surround the small village.
In actual fact, it doesn’t matter whatsoever how long the names of places are, as it makes very little difference to mine or anyone else’s lives, but it’s fun to get faux-frustrated sometimes. The people who it impacts the most are the locals of the village and the villages surrounding it who have to commonly refer to it. If I lived in the village, I would be writing a strongly worded email to my local farmer/councillor/counsellor (because I assume everyone has to hold a multitude of roles in rural Welsh villages). Most of the character count would be dedicated to writing the name of the village, anyway.
“Dear Mayor/Representative/Neighbour of Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch. I don’t know if you are aware, but our town name is longer than all 3 of our neighbour’s town names combined. If the government paid me for the time that I spend correctly pronouncing it to tourists in the street, I may be more invested in retaining the status quo, but seeing as you have rejected my many requests for this to be made an official job, I detest doing it. I’m not even sure how to pronounce it myself. I just make sure that I sound extra Welsh as I incoherently blurt out a bundle of letters and watch as the minute hand ticks on my watch, ensuring that the facade goes on for a little over 1.5 minutes, but that it never exceeds 2.”
I’m such a bad actor that even my written monologues come off in an English accent. What a pity.
There is actually a shortened version of the village name – Llanfairpwllgwyngyll. It still looks like total nonsense, but it loses most of the comedy and charm when it isn’t 58 characters long, like its long-form twin. I wonder if, upon realising that they did not actually have the longest place name in the world, and were actually second, they shortened it. The endless letters they had to scribe when writing their address finally wearing them out, and the financial burden of paying 5 times more than the average person when purchasing a new driving licence due to the ‘Address’ section. It’s hard to carry around a driving licence when it has to be in A4 size, you know?
The village’s population was 3,107 according to the 2011 census. Of those people, 71% speak Welsh. I’m assuming that still means that 29% of people can’t pronounce their own village name. I’d even be willing to bet that at least half of the Welsh-speaking population in the village also can’t pronounce the name of the village that they grew up in. I wouldn’t even blame them – who could? They’ve been cursed by some old-school Welsh elitist who felt it appropriate to name their settlement possibly the most ridiculous name on planet Earth. But it ISN’T the most ridiculously named place on planet earth, is it? There is another place, far far away, which towers over this fair Welsh village on the podium of place names.
New Zealand holds the longest name of a place on planet Earth. ‘Taumata whakatangi hangakoauau o tamatea turi pukakapiki maunga horo nuku pokai whenua kitanatahu’ is an actual name of an actual place. Now, even as I write this, I haven’t made it all the way through this place name, but I haven’t made it all the way through the one in Wales either. It isn’t the language barrier that is the problem. I actually just get bored after the first 15 characters. We aren’t predisposed to spend 30 seconds reading the name of a single place. Language is a dynamic, living force within us. Without it, we wouldn’t have ascended to the top of the food chain.
Our ability to communicate complex ideas and understand each other is exactly what separates us from nearly every other creature on this planet. We don’t only have the ability to tell each other when there is danger coming, we can explain why it is dangerous, how it is dangerous, that we find dangerous situations extremely sexy, and then we can agree on a safe word before proceeding with the …danger… Quite amazing really. Yet, these places expect us to sit around, learning every painful letter and syllable so we can pronounce the name of a place that we are very unlikely to go to for any other reason than to take a picture next to the sign. Well, I’m fine thank you, darling. The UK actually hosts a number of funnier names that are far shorter, such as ‘Sandy Balls’ in Hampshire, or ‘Shitterton’ in Dorset.
The number of spaces in the New Zealand name also makes it invalid in my opinion. There’s a reason why we don’t reel off sentences and assign them as place names, and that’s because it’s stupid. Want to know what the name translates to? Do you care? Probably not, but here it is: ‘The summit where Tamatea, the man with the big knees, the slider, climber of mountains, the land-swallower who travelled about, played his nose flute to his loved one’. Another Lord of the Rings narrative – what is with these places?
Now, I have since realised that it is often stylised as a single word, so my previous point about spaces is less valid, although still perfectly valid, but I’ve also seen it separated by hyphens, or just split into what I assume are words in the Maori language. In actual fact, it should have numerous spaces in it, because it’s a full sentence, and as far as I’m aware, sentences have spaces, but that might be my limited knowledge of languages hindering me.
Perhaps some languages allow people who name places and make signs to disregard spaces so long as there is a record to be broken. I might email my local council about changing the name of where I live to ‘HomeOfTheHouseWhereCancerDanTheCancerManLivedAfterFightingCancerWithHisPancreasButLostHisPancreasInTheProcess’. At 109 characters, it would be the longest place name in the world, putting my little part of London on the map and encouraging tourism, whilst also catapulting me to minor stardom. There are no losers, only winners. Every time anyone fills in their address in the neighbourhood, they’ll be reminded of my feats against cancer, just like the people of New Zealand are reminded of Tamatea’s big knees whenever they visit Taumata Whakatangi Hangakoau… etc etc etc etc etc.
Come to think of it, we could make the name even more characters… ‘HomeOfTheHouseWhereCancerDanTheCancerManWithTheAverageSizedKneesLivedAfterFightingCancerWithHisPancreasButLostHisPancreasInTheProcess’. Impressive. I can’t wait for the inevitable tourism boom, and interest in just how average-sized my knees really are (I’d actually opine that they are smaller than average, but we’ll see what the press says when they swarm all over the story like flies on rotten fruit).
It’s quite surprising that the length of place names hasn’t become a perpetual pissing contest between smaller places of the world. I picture it going like this: a small village realises that it has a boring old standard name, so changes it to a longer, sillier form, and then earns a place on the podium. Within 5 years, we’ll have a place name hitting the 1000-character mark. It sounds like hell, but it could be interesting. Still, there are some solid entries in the current list. Number 10 in the list is ‘Mamungkukumpurangkuntjunya’ in Australia, at a measly 26 characters long. That is very beatable! It still looks absolutely ridiculous, but it is a lot less characters than the top entry which, as we know, is 85. One advantage that 10th place has over all of the others is that it translates to ‘where the devil urinates’. Ok, Australia, you’ve made it onto the bucket list, alongside Sandy Balls and Shitterton. Well done.
Yet for all of my complaining and sarcasm, the reason that I know about these long place names is because of a teacher that I had in primary school who could pronounce the entire of Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch from memory. It was very impressive. Granted, I wasn’t in a position to know whether she did it correctly, but she did it with confidence, so I always believed her. I was also under the age of 10 when this happened, so was more than likely susceptible to being duped, alongside the rest of the class who also stood in disbelief as she recited it back to us. I’m pretty sure I saw some of her hair turn grey during the process. By the time she finished, the year had actually concluded, and I found myself getting ready for secondary school. She’s probably only had time to say it another 3 or 4 times since then. Hopefully, she has found some other things to do with her time.
So, this isn’t a post which is particularly in favour or anti-long place names. It is a post to encourage you to look into niche topics because there is always plenty of fun to be had in diving into them. I can’t remember what my life was like before I learnt of where the devil pissed, but I’m sure it was a little less interesting.